If you’ve always wanted to take your date to that amazing improv show but not wanted to be “that guy” who takes their date to improv shows, have I got a film for you. Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice offers a harshly authentic look into the rough and tumble world of professional comedy, and the often depressed, existentially bewildered and ultimately confused players that writhe in it.
While movies about the unique struggles that plague comedians have made a resurgence in the past few years since Annie Hall in 1977 (notably Obvious Child and Birbiglia’s own Sleepwalk With Me), Don’t Think Twice is the first to deal with improv as a unique art form. Balancing the arduous duty of creating good art with furthering one’s own professional goals becomes an impossible task when even your teammates, students or partner is competition.
Miles (Birbiglia), the nearing-40 founder of The Commune, an acclaimed NYC improv troupe, serves as the de-facto patriarch of its current six members. After trying and failing for the past decade to land a gig at Weekend Live, a can-you-even-call-it-“veiled” version of Saturday Night Live, he’s grown bitter and jaded, using the same old pickup lines to sleep with his 20 year-old students. The rest of The Commune live similarly unfulfilling lives off-stage. Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) and Bill (Chris Gethard) work low-end jobs just to make enough money to perform improv every night. Allison (Kate Micucci) has been struggling to finish her comic book for the past nine years while Lindsay (Tami Sagher) who lives with her wealthy parents just filed for unemployment.
These ostensibly sad and banal characters truly come alive in the scenes they build together. The film’s improv scenes are otherworldly compared to the straightforward camera work of everyday scenes, with the camera bouncing from one player to the next like the developing story on stage. The troupe lives as a symbiotic organism in and of itself.
A wrench gets thrown in the machine when it is discovered that Jack has landed a gig at Weekend Live and that the theatre hosting The Commune is closing down. The rest of the group simultaneously envy Jack’s newfound success while attempting to shoehorn their way onto the show through their friend. Meanwhile, Jack grows egotistical while simply trying to stay where he is.
Here, Don’t Think Twice truly nails the culture surrounding professional comedy and the notoriously cut-throat environment of Saturday Night Live. Miles calls Weekend Live as “the only live sporting event of comedy,” describing a time where making it to the big leagues is no sign that you’ve made it or that you can ever stop swimming. Television comedy is the closest thing we have to The Hunger Games in modern media, except perhaps The Bachelor. We already know three tributes dead this year: Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah and Jon Rudnitsky were all fired from SNL this past August.
Fights break out over comedic ability, relationships are strained and broken, familial tragedies take place. The six players have their worlds shattered, as Bill says “I feel like your twenties are all about hope and then your thirties are all about realizing how dumb it was to hope.” The film’s best jokes, and there are many, arrive with its most heartbreaking scenes, forcing you to laugh in spite of the events onscreen (okay, so maybe this isn’t the best movie for a date).
Sam ends up being the last bastion of unadulterated belief in improv amidst the group in spite of her partner and troupe-mate Jack’s insistence that “you can’t do improv forever, it just ends.” Sam calls the day she was adopted into The Commune as “the greatest day of my life,” holding onto that original joy that so many performers grow disillusioned with.
Don’t Think Twice shines as a heartbroken love letter to improv comedy. Such a film is not just important but necessary in an era where SNL feels about as culturally relevant as “I Can Has Cheezburger?” Birbiglia paints a harrowing image of nearly every artist’s internal battle between personal and professional success, but the legitimacy of improv as valid and worthwhile art is never questioned. Even as the individual members of The Commune separate to go their own ways, they never lose their love of the fleeting worlds they created together.
Kaushik De is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.